Nonfiction

Abbott: 1 | Australia: 0

30 November 2013

At the end of a disastrous and depressing year for the left in Australia, Labor has finally elected a new leader in a refreshingly democratic process. But Bill Shorten has inherited a mess of a party. It may be tempting, as many progressives did in the weeks after the election, to get angry at the Australian people for being tricked by a far-right maniac like Tony Abbott. But the election loss, and the debilitating political year, are the fault of no one but Labor. Or more specifically, no one but Kevin Rudd. He managed to take one of the most resounding victories ever in 2007 and squander it in just a few short years.

His absurd narcissism was on full display at the night of the election. Abbott’s “Australia is once more open for business” speech was the smarmy triumphalism of a crazed follower of the Church of Howard, intent on the belief that those born to rule had been returned to their rightful place. But even that crazy was topped by the twice-failed Rudd, who in his speech simply pretended that he didn’t lose. Rudd even had the balls to act like he’d actually been strengthening the Labor party, not slowly destroying it from the inside out like a moonfaced termite, leaving only a withered husk.

He was so bad at his job of governing the country and managing his party that his own colleagues kicked him out first term. Then, instead of gracefully stepping aside, he chose to destabilise and destroy the party from the inside—ensuring through leaks that Julia Gillard barely won in 2010 and through constant leadership agitation that she could never connect with the public, and wouldn’t even make it to the next election. Then, once Labor was truly withered and weak, he took back control. The Rudd election campaign was a disaster, the only solace being at least we can finally move on from the unstable and ungovernable era of Rudd Labor.

We don’t know yet what exactly the Abbott government is going to look like. Abbott coasted to victory on the political self-destruction of Labor, giving away very little about what he wanted to do in government except repeal some taxes and turn away some watercraft. Stopping the boats is already looking unlikely thanks to Indonesia essentially telling our Prime Minister, “Good luck with that one.” In his first weeks, he’s been keeping his head low, hoping that in not hearing much news about politics, people will assume he’s doing a good job. With news already that his MPs and Abbott himself have been using government money to attend private weddings, this strategy seems ineffective.

What we do know about him is that he’s actually not a completely crazy neoliberal. Already, newly minted treasurer Hockey is talking about injecting stimulus into the economy to ward off a slowdown, despite arguing against stimulus for years. The government is also quickly abandoning reaching a surplus any sooner than Labor, and pretending they never mentioned a ‘budget emergency’. This is rank hypocrisy, but it’s also good economics that may save Australia from the stagnation that right-wing austerity policies are causing in Europe. Abbott’s economic policies are a schizophrenic grab-bag of whatever works politically, with generous welfare policies like paid parental leave lumped together with small-government nonsense like repealing the mining tax or cutting mythical waste.

On many more points, Abbott is much closer to a far-right Tea Partier. Unlike British conservative PM David Cameron, or the supposedly modern Malcolm Turnbull for that matter, Abbott doesn’t see it as his mission to modernise his conservative party. Cameron championed ambitious targets to cut carbon, dragging his party along. Abbott wants none of that, and seems to act exactly as conservatively as he thinks he can get away with. Australia now essentially has a climate denial government and a PM hostile to refugees and gay Australians. Then there’s his complete silence on abortion, an issue which is fundamental to his theology but which he knows he cannot raise in today’s Australia.

One thing we can count on with the new government is the renewal of the culture wars. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has already promised to repeal the Student Services and Amenities Fee, a move that will be a disaster for students everywhere—undermining everything from student legal services to childcare to the student media you’re reading right now. Students and academia are in their sights, but, alarmingly, so is science. Abbott has no science minister for the first time in a half century, has disbanded the Climate Commission and seems likely to start meddling in where science research is directed. Why Labor acts like it doesn’t have to wage the culture wars when it’s in government I’ll never understand, because the second the Coalition gains power they attack the intellectual classes that form the foundation of social democracy in Australia.

But by far the scariest thing we’ve seen this year was the overt intersection of wealth and power. Clive Palmer, thanks to a spat with the Liberal National Party in Queensland, spent millions on his own ridiculous party, essentially buying himself a lower house seat and a couple in the Senate. Meanwhile, the quiet support of the plutocrats Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch helped guarantee a smooth and successful election for Abbott. Australia is increasingly looking like the banana republic that Keating warned of, where a few rich magnates dictate public policy and help determine elections.

Small wonder that the Liberal programme of repealing carbon pricing and the mining tax will handsomely benefit mining magnates like Rinehart, while undermining the public good. Australia today has a booming north and west–producing billions for a select few from mining projects that exploit natural resources that we all collectively own. Meanwhile, the east coast is stagnating and its infrastructure falling behind. In response, out new government is promising to do nothing except put money back into the pockets of billionaires.

We still don’t know exactly how Abbott will govern, but he has come into office with an eclectic mess of unworkable policies, hidden agendas and a vague promise of inoffensive competence. What we do know is that with the election of this new government the wealthy classes of Australia have declared war on academia, science and good public policy. Worryingly, they do so under the guise of helping out the average Australian. The left needs to get its shit together and form a common voice to defeat the government at the next election—before a diverse, equal and growing Australia completely slips from our grasp.


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